Scripture reading – Acts 15; Acts 16
I introduced you to James, the author of the Epistle of James, in a prior devotional. He was believed to be the half-brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19), and the head of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17). That same James appears in today’s Scripture reading in the role of the senior pastor\elder of the congregation in Jerusalem.
Today’s Scripture reading chronicled the growth pangs of the 1st century church. While the church began with Jewish converts, the growing number of Gentiles who believed presented a theological crisis. Because there were historic prejudices between the Jews and Gentiles, it was inevitable that conflicts would arise in the Antioch congregation that was comprised of both Jews and Greeks. The arrival of “men which came down from Judaea” (15:1a) created a conflict that threatened not only the unity of the church, but questioned the foundational doctrine of salvation by God’s grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). The men of Judaea taught, “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (15:1b).
Paul and Barnabas confronted the dissension that was created by those men, and it was determined they, along with other men, should “go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about [the] question” (15:2). The same debate soon raged in Jerusalem as believers “of the sect of the Pharisees” maintained that Gentile believers must not only be circumcised to be saved, but also be commanded “to keep the law of Moses” (15:5).
The Jerusalem Council (15:6-21)
The apostles and elders gathered as representatives of the congregation, and listened as the dispute over circumcision raged (15:6-7a). Peter finally arose, and declared what had already been agreed upon in an earlier council (15:7b). It had been determined the Gospel was not only for the Jews, but for all men (Acts 10:1-48). When Cornelius, a Roman centurion heard the Gospel and believed, God gave him the indwelling of the Holy Ghost (Acts 10:44-48). Peter observed how God had “put no difference” between the men of Jewish ancestry, and those who were Gentile. All sinners come to salvation by faith (15:9). Peter declared, whether Jew or Gentile, “we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved” (15:11).
Then, the people fell silent, as Paul and Barnabas shared how the Lord had validated their preaching and teaching by “miracles and wonders” that only the LORD could have produced (15:12). James, whom I believe was the senior pastor\elder of the Jerusalem congregation (Galatians 1:19), declared he was in agreement with Peter (i.e. Simeon, 15:14). He reminded the believers how the prophet Amos had foretold that Gentiles would be a part of God’s kingdom (Amos 9:11-12). James counseled the members of the church to accept the doctrine of salvation by grace though faith alone, and not overburden Gentile believers with instructions that were not required for salvation (15:19-21).
There was a consensus to accept James’ summary, and affirm the decision in writing. Furthermore, two men of the Jerusalem congregation were chosen to accompany the letter, and act as representatives of the church to believers in Antioch (15:20, 22-23). The letter also urged Gentile believers to, “abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood” (15:20), truths from the Old Testament they needed to know and practice.
The Effect of the Letter Addressed to Antioch Believers (15:31-41)
The letter affirming salvation by grace alone stirred up a spirit of rejoicing among believers (15:31). Silas, one of the two men sent from the Jerusalem congregation, remained in Antioch, and became a missionary peer of Paul (15:34). Paul and Barnabas “continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord,” and “many others also” became teachers and preachers (15:35).
Closing thoughts (15:36-41) – The concluding verses of Acts 15 remind us that, though Paul and Barnabas were giants of the faith in the early church, they were nevertheless human. With the dissension over the doctrine of salvation by grace resolved, Paul announced his desire to journey and visit believers in the cities and towns where he and Barnabas had “preached the word of the Lord” (15:36). Yet, Barnabas insisted on bringing John Mark (15:37), whom Paul opposed for he had deserted them in Pamphylia (15:38). The quarrel between the two men was so great, they separated themselves, “and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus” (15:39).
There has long been a debate regarding who was right concerning John Mark, Barnabas or Paul? I could make several arguments on this point, but because Paul was an apostle and Barnabas was not, I wonder if Barnabas failed to submit to authority? Another point in Paul’s favor is, when he and Silas departed, they were “recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God (15:40). The same affirmation was not said of Barnabas and John Mark. Nevertheless, at the end of his life and ministry, Paul wrote of John Mark: “Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).
In the providence and sovereignty of God, John Mark not only came to Paul’s aid, he would later author the Gospel of Mark! What marvelous grace!
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